STORY BY SEBASTIAN NEUWEILER AND TYNE LOGAN
Several measures proposed by Western Australia’s chief judge to combat the alarming rate of Aboriginal incarceration have been endorsed by Premier Colin Barnett, the head of Western Australia’s Aboriginal Legal Service, and a Noongar man who reconnects people to country.
And, in WA, Aboriginal incarceration is 22.3 times the rate of non-Aboriginal incarceration.
In February, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Wayne Martin QC, delivered a largely unheralded speech that suggested a range of short, medium and long term measures to address the issue.
Among Mr Martin’s suggested short-term solutions was stopping sentencing for fine default.
This has been supported by Premier Colin Barnett who, at South Hedland in the state’s north, recently met with the family of Ms Dhu, an Aboriginal woman who died in custody last year after being detained for fine default.
Mr Martin said that, in 2013, 1358 Western Australians taken into prison were jailed only for fine default and for no other reason.
In South Hedland, Mr Barnett agreed alternatives were needed in order to reduce the lock-up rate for minor offences, citing drug-affected people as an example of those who should not be in jail.
“We are looking at alternative forms of accommodation,” he said.
“For example, if somebody is disorderly or drug-affected, they will go to drying-out centres and the like rather than placing them in cells in police stations.”
While Mr Martin said that not locking people up for minor offences would be a big step in the right direction, he added the best way to keep Aboriginal people out of prison was to keep them out of court.
In his speech, he suggested diversion programs for Aboriginal children who were potential future offenders.
Former boxer Eugene Eades runs one such program at Nowanup in the state’s Great Southern region – a camp that reconnects people with land and culture.
In 2009 Mr Eades brought four young Aboriginal boys who were at risk of becoming wards of the state to the camp. With permission from the courts, the boys stayed with him for three months.
“When that was mentioned as a way of sentencing I put my hand up to defend that and I said ‘making them wards of the state won’t help the situation’,” he said.
“And if they didn’t shape up to the requirements of what the court was expecting to see or hear from these young gentlemen, [the courts] would determine whether they got sentenced.”
He said the emphasis was on teaching the boys, but it was equally important to provide support to their families.
In a ground-breaking move, Mr Eades asked that the trial for the boys take place on country at Nowanup rather than in a courtroom.
“As we sat there that day the magistrate grabbed two handfuls of sand just after she declared the court open and she let the sand gently fall out of her hand and I could see tears drop from her eyes,” he said.
“She said to me ‘if I had have known that this place was here before, I might have sentenced a lot of Aboriginal people a bit differently than I did in the past’.”
Recent figures from the Australia Bureau of Statistics show that 81 per cent of Aboriginal people in Australian prisons had been imprisoned previously.
In his speech, Mr Martin said this was “plainly unacceptable” and the judicial system was not using time spent in prison effectively.
“Why are we not making sure that Aboriginal prisoners can read when they leave prison – that they are numerate; that they have a driver’s license; that they have skills that will render them employable; that they have had substance abuse programmes; that they have had anger management programmes,” he said.
Aboriginal Legal Service CEO Dennis Eggington agreed that short and medium term fixes would help, but said a long-term solution was essential.
This was also brought to light by Mr Martin.
Mr Eggington said in order to see a long-term reduction in incarceration rates, a “concept of true partnership”, like a treaty, must exist between Aboriginal people and governments.
“And I think once that happens the inter-generational disadvantage, the marginalisation of Aboriginal people will disappear within a number of generations because people will either be born into this country or come to this country having a total respect for the position of Aboriginal people,” he said.
“Unfortunately at the moment Aboriginal people are seen as lazy, a drain on the economy, a drain on the taxpayer and ‘why should they have any special rights above and beyond every other citizen?’
“That’s a terrible place for the psyche of Australia to have of its first nation people.”